I’m not friends with any professional athletes. Are you? I’m not sure it’s even possible. First off, and this is probably the biggest thing, they are always training: It is difficult to talk a buddy into grabbing a few whiskeys with you on a random Tuesday night when they’ve gotta be up at 3 a.m. for the first of their seven workouts tomorrow. But the gulf between us is essentially infinite on multiple dimensions. There’s the money disparity (they’d never want to be seen in my Volvo), the age disparity (the only people they hang out with my age are their dads), the lack of common interests (attempts to get them to go to this Matthew Sweet show with me next month would likely prove unsuccessful), and of course a million other things. Professional athletes are never going to hang out with me, or you, or anyone you know. We inhabit entirely different universes. We are strangers to each other.
But it does not feel that way as a fan, does it? Athletes are a part of our lives in a more intimate way that even some of our loved ones ever will be. Albert Pujols and I became intertwined when he was a 21-year-old spring-training phenom for my beloved St. Louis Cardinals in March 2001, and there hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought about him since. I have followed his every move, worried about his mood, fretted about his physical condition, roared encouragements to him that I’d withhold from my own children. Do you know he had a weight problem in high school? That he, his father, and his grandfather moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic in 1996 before witnessing a shooting and moving to Missouri? That his favorite dessert is crème brûlée? I sure do. This is what being a sports fan is: having a daily relationship with a person in the public space with whom I have no actual connection with other than that I think about them all the time. I have known Albert Pujols longer than I have known my wife and roughly 95 percent of the people I see on a daily basis. To paraphrase Fever Pitch, he, and the teams he played for and I cheer for, are the only things still a part of my 43-year-old life that were a part of my 25-year-old one. I couldn’t break that bond if I tried.
I’ve never met him, of course. And I don’t really desire to. And that’s the sports-fan-to-athlete relationship. Profound, lasting, vital, and entirely one-sided … and entirely empty of actual human connection. He is important to me. But he isn’t important to me. Those biographical details should humanize him to me, but they don’t really; they’re more like trivia; they’re proof I’ve been paying too much attention, but not proof that I actually care. He is doing his work independent of an audience — unlike, say, a great musician, athletes aren’t thinking of an audience when they do their work — and thus we can respond in the same detached fashion. It’s no wonder fantasy sports have exploded: In a way, they’ve always been stat producers to us. This relationship is as essential for sports to work as it is fundamentally grotesque, and it has a certain cold, transactional logic to it: The athlete gets fame and fortune, and I get an artificial connective tissue between various stages of my life and a reason to scream at my television on weekends. It’s sports economics in its purest form. It’s how this was always supposed to work. Just don’t tug at the threads too hard.
Which is why two weeks ago, when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck stunned the NFL world by retiring in the prime of his career because of his struggles with injuries, it felt like there was a rupture in this already dysfunctional fan-athlete relationship, one that had been building up for a while. The tear wasn’t Luck’s retirement. He’s far from the first football player to decide he would get out while the getting’s good, to walk away with the money he has made from his sport while he’s still mentally and physically able to enjoy it. (He’s just the first franchise quarterback to do it.) No, what was so upsetting about Luck’s retirement wasn’t the retirement itself: It was the reaction to it. Specifically, the reaction to it from Colts fans, who learned about the retirement during a Colts home preseason game, as they watched him walk off the field for the last time. They booed him like James Dolan at a Knicks game.
Now, let’s unpack that reaction a bit. The Colts, more than any other NFL franchise, have been blessed with perfect quarterback fortune over the last two decades. They were bad enough in 1997 to draft Peyton Manning No. 1 overall and, because they drafted one of the best quarterbacks of all time, were excellent for 13 years, winning a Super Bowl along the way. Manning missed the 2011 season with a neck injury, which meant the Colts were terrible again, which meant they got the No. 1 pick again, and went out and picked Luck, who then made them excellent again. Most teams spend 40 years looking for a franchise quarterback; the Colts fell backward into two. For most of his career in Indianapolis, Luck has been the lone bright spot on otherwise mediocre teams, with team management, led by the erratic Jim Irsay, putting Luck in mortal danger behind Swiss-cheese offensive lines. Luck has fought through concussions, a torn abdomen, multiple shoulder surgeries, ripped rib cartilage, and a lingering calf injury that left him hobbling. Despite this, Luck has won them multiple playoff games, and he nearly led them to another Super Bowl. The only reason the Colts have been watchable for the last decade has been Andrew Luck. Monuments have been built for players who have done far less.
But the response to learning that Andrew Luck — a player whose name these fans’ children have been wearing on their back their entire lives, a person who has been the public face of an otherwise mostly nondescript city for ten years (unless they want to claim Mike Pence), a guy who was funnier on Parks & Recreation than Louis CK ever was and even had his own glorious meme that he was in on — was retiring was not to applaud him for all the memories he had provided them. Their response was to boo him as if he had flipped them the bird, like children who broke their favorite toy and responded by throwing the toy in the fireplace.
Even using the callous calculus of the fan-athlete relationship, this seemed to break a contract. Being upset that your team has lost its franchise quarterback is perfectly reasonable; being angry at him, to instantaneously forget all the joy he provided you, all the joy you experienced with him, for taking care of his physical well-being felt boorish … flat-out mean. Athletes often treat fans (and media, really) as a single-faced mass, a public-opinion meter that is either lovers boosting their ego too high or haters trying to take them down. It had mostly balanced out what had mostly been considered harmless and ultimately, I’d argue, a positive: Fans cheer when you are up, they jeer when you are down, but no matter what they care, and that’s what makes this whole world go ’round. But to see, so starkly, the response to the end of nine years of dedication and hero worship be a pounding of the table and a demand for More! More! felt not just a betrayal, but even brutish, gladiatorial bloodsport. It felt legitimately ugly in a way fandom is never supposed to be ugly.
And if you think this is just an Indianapolis thing, look at the fans at the U.S. Open who booed Novak Djokovic for retiring from his match Sunday in obvious pain despite being mostly beloved up to that point after a career of 16 major titles, including three in Flushing. Cheering for athletes has always involved separating what they do from what they are. (It’s why we can cheer for assholes.) But to drop years of fandom in a half-second, simply because the player’s body no longer works the way they want it to, feels different. Perhaps being a fan is no different than eating at a restaurant, or subscribing to Netflix, or signing up for a savings account. Perhaps we really are all just consumers; certainly that’s how these sports leagues have always treated us. But acting this way toward the actual men and women putting their bodies and minds on the line for us does feel like a crossing of a line. It feels like we’re all spoiled brats, demanding to speak to the manager. It felt like burning a player’s jersey while he was still wearing it.
This was probably always coming. In an age when fantasy sports and obsessive hot-stove and free-agency tracking and transfer portals have diminished the idea of “team as collective experience;” in an age when owners and leagues increasingly treat their meat-and-potatoes fans and customers as fixed income not to be bothered catering to, and in an age when heckling the right-fielder can be done 24 hours a day from the comfort of your smartphone, it is perhaps inevitable that the transactional nature of sports fandom has turned in places to be this sour and toxic. But it is a real change.
The leagues have counted on this change, as players unions lessen in power and individual player rights are trampled on as a matter of public policy. (In an entirely unrelated news item, the NFL season begins on Thursday.) All of our professional sports leagues are due for some sort major labor issue in the next five years, and if history is any guide, each of these battles will come ultimately come down to the court of public opinion. Which side will the fans come down on: the owners who stage the games, or the players who perform in them? In the past, owners have won these fights by leaning on the players, by essentially making the case to fans that players shouldn’t want more money, that they should feel honored and lucky to have the opportunity to play these “kids games.” This has always been a facile argument. But it has been a winning one. The way we’re reacting to Andrew Luck and Novak Djokovic, it looks like it will continue to be one. Players can feel rapture in our cheers. But they shouldn’t believe them.